Following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will pull out from the voluntary Paris climate agreement to reduce global warming, a handful of mayors in Colorado say they plan to take the lead themselves.
The five so far, from Aspen, Boulder, Denver, Lakewood and Longmont, are among a list of 83 “Climate Mayors” across the country who signed a letter saying they will “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.”
That international agreement is a pact among 195 countries forged in 2015 with the goal of stopping the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius, which is 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of this century. The agreement also asks wealthy countries to help poorer counties pay for green technology. Since there are no penalties for breaking the accord, the global deal is largely symbolic— a statement that countries acknowledge climate change is an urgent problem they should help mitigate.
Other than the U.S., the only two countries to pull out of the agreement are Syria and Nicaragua. Worldwide, only China currently emits more greenhouse gasses than the United States.
In bolting from the global accord, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise. Doing so, he said in his announcement Thursday, “represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty.” Completely withdrawing from the agreement will take until 2020, the year Trump is up for re-election.
“Embarrassed. Very disappointed,” said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones when she heard the news. “And also outraged. It is a total abdication of leadership and it is also backwards looking … on one of the most important issues facing our generation.”
Jones’ signature on the Climate Mayors letter is just one more way for Boulder to show its commitment to the planet. In the past year, her city has adopted its own climate goals that go well beyond those of the Paris treaty, including an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
“We simply cannot afford not to take action to mitigate climate change, just from a fiscal point of view,” she told The Colorado Independent, noting extreme weather events like fires and floods that have damaged the state. She expects them to get worse. “It’s about fiscal survival, and, of course, public safety.”
Three and a half hours southeast, the city of Aspen is on the forefront of sustainability and carbon reduction. It was the second city in the nation to convert its electric utility to 100 percent renewable sources, says Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron, who is also a signatory on the letter.
The move toward full renewable energy is just one part of Aspen’s ambitious Canary Initiative, a city program dedicated to tackling climate change. Skadron was in Paris in 2015 for the global climate conference. He was invited because of Aspen’s leadership at the local level and for his role in forming the Compact for Colorado Communities, which urges its members to take action on greenhouse gas emission reductions. The group hosted a conference in Aspen on May 19.
Last Summer, when Trump was scheduled to hit up Aspen for a fundraiser, Skadron used the opportunity suggest he change his mind about a certain topic. “I’m hopeful that Mr. Trump’s visit to our cherished community will sensitize him to the reality of climate change and its impact on our community,” Skadron said at the time. “The strength of our local economy is directly related to the health of our natural environment.”
In the 24 hours since Trump’s Thursday announcement, Skadron’s phone has been blowing up, he says. He has called the pullout “downright dumb.”
“I can’t express to you my disappointment,” he said over the phone Friday.
Back on the Front Range in Longmont, Mayor Dennis Coombs, who also sits on the board of the Platte River Power corporation that provides electricity to his city and others nearby, has seen the price of renewable energy technology like wind and solar drop over the years.
Maybe a decade ago someone could make the argument that clean energy costs a lot more than coal, he says, but that’s just not the case today. Meanwhile, he says, clean energy is creating jobs.
“By 2019, 41 to 42 percent of the energy delivered to the City of Longmont will be renewable, non-carbon energy,” he says. “We’re doing that regardless of what Trump does because it makes economic sense.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who implemented a Climate Action Plan in 2015, said in a statement that his city has been a leader in combating climate change and in growing the clean energy economy.
“We will not back down from our commitment to address this global threat and will continue the pledge to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement even in the absence of federal leadership,” he said.
In Lakewood, a city outside Denver with residents who work for oil and gas companies and in the renewable energy industry, Mayor Adam Paul kicked off a sustainability plan in 2015, the same year as the Paris accord.
“Local government inherently is nonpartisan,” he told The Independent. “I’m not affiliated, I’ve never been. So this was kind of a big leap for me to kind of engage on this more national scene, because in some ways I don’t think that’s my role.”
So he approached his city’s plan in a way that was non-prescriptive, and part of it is what he calls the state’s first Sustainable Neighborhoods Program, an initiative that has since grown nationally. Neighborhoods apply and say what they want to do— think community gardens, energy audits, or public composting events involving local waste companies— and the city decides whether to support their needs. The program has been well received, Paul says, because it isn’t government mandating anything, but rather a bottom-up approach that allows neighborhoods to look for their own opportunities.
Still, he hears it from both sides. Some call it phooey and others say it isn’t going far enough. He says he’s trying to find middle ground in a way that’s meaningful.
“This shouldn’t be political. You had Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil, you had the Pope, all these different people, you had the Defense Department saying these are challenges. So let’s forget about the politics and let’s look at it as an opportunity for us to work together and make things better. Maybe that’s utopian.”